Stories Behind the Metal Birds | Silver

Hello everyone. It is definitely an exciting time for me to start doing my second semester research on the past events and current developments of commercial aviation. I am a huge fan of commercial aviation since I was little, and I regularly read and write travel blogs and aviation forums to get to know the latest trends or development in this field and to share my thoughts.


Air Canada Boeing 777-300ER with service from Shanghai to Toronto (picture taken by myself)

Going to a school far away from my home allows me to travel more frequently: last year, I flew 106,369 miles on United Airlines alone. The extensive air travel experience I have had in the past drives me to first consider commercial aviation as a unique form of cultural representation. For example, the extreme clarity, simplicity, and uniformity of three largest U.S. carriers (American, United, Delta) have in their seat configurations, passenger service, and frequent flyer programs indicate a focus on practicality and reliability that proves to be valuable for many Americans. On the contrary, the meticulous service goals set by Asian carriers like Singapore Airlines and All Nippon Airways reflect a more “romantic” mindset typical of many travelers in that region. The combination of Western uniformity and Chinese hospitality manifested in Cathay Pacific, an iconic Hong Kong carrier, even presents the cultural predicament many people in the city face after the period of British colonialism ended in 1997. Clearly, the study of commercial aviation tells much about the past that we all share.

Besides gaining more knowledge and experience about air travel, I have increasingly come to see commercial aviation as a great industry that encompasses many dimensions worthy of further exploration. The industry’s unique multidimensional attributes are not obscurely hinted at when I look at the abundant connections between its various components. While the ways airline executives dealt with two different workers’ unions after company mergers provide significant insights into how conflicts and tension in the workplace can be reconciled, the strategies airlines use to adjust their fares at different times for different customers bring practical, illustrative examples of revenue maximization. Still, the evolution of both the exterior and the interior of commercial jets and even ground facilities like baggage processors are indicative of the rapid technological developments the world has seen in the past few hundreds of years. Clearly, in a sense, the history of commercial aviation provides a unique, valuable platform on which the economic, technological, and even political histories can be explored. 

When I was doing my college research back in the fall, I was particularly inspired by a former Penn history graduate student Deborah G. Douglas’s dissertation about how the invention of airports involved a “social negotiation” among engineers, architects, city planners and government officials. Just as the construction of such transportation facilities, as Douglas eloquently mentioned, is a result of collective endeavors from many social institutions, the evolution of commercial aviation itself can similarly be seen as a microcosm of human history. Having gained that understanding, I would not only learn more about the industry through dissecting and analyzing its history, but also approach the historical events I already know with a new angle by taking commercial aviation developments into consideration.

After reading this, you may still find the topic of my research somewhat abstruse. But don’t worry – I will be focusing on a particular event/pattern every week, so that I can avoid talking about things that seem to intangible and generic.

The first piece I chose for my research is the evolution of airplane seats. Elderly people might remember the elegance they once enjoyed in spacious leather seats on old-day passenger aircrafts, but we are now only seeing the dichotomy between the overpriced fancy “suites in the air” and the slimmer and slimmer coach seats. Travelers who often hustle internationally are increasingly getting the impression that while people who sit upfront enjoy, the majority of common travelers suffer. What happened in the last few decades that drove (and potentially continues to drive) this change?  What insights (aside from the avarice of corporations) can we get out of this evolution of seats, or the shrinking of space?

Thanks for reading all the way through. Stay tuned, and I’ll see you here next week with answers and more.

By the way, here is an interesting article about this topic:

Reference to the article by Deborah G. Douglas that I mentioned earlier:


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